One of the most transcultural markers of what historians call modernity has been an ethical, or at least discursive, prioritizing of children’s welfare. While the neglect of children in traditional patriarchal societies has often been exaggerated, there is no question that the dominant modern norm puts children in the privileged position. This transformation accompanied the historical metamorphosis of children from useful to useless, from workers to objects of sentimentality.1
In theory, advantaging children is an aspect of modernism, advanced capitalism, and heightened individualism. But in the process of its development, the putting-children-first policy arose from some traditional as well as modern elements. In much of the world, the children-first perspective arrived with women’s increased cultural and political power, and organized women were primarily responsible for creating modern child-welfare consciousness. That women’s activism was, paradoxically, rooted in women’s traditional responsibility for children, even as it constituted part of the modern women’s-rights movement. Putting children first worked to promote motherhood as a claim to respect and power for women. The activist form of this construction, named “maternalism,” allowed women to make citizenship claims without seeming to deviate from their motherly destiny. And yet, in other contexts, the child-centered imperative has sometimes pitted children’s “interests” against those [End Page 331] of parents, especially mothers. Thus the putting-children-first perspective has been used to advance diverse, even opposed, social ends.
In law and social work, privileging children often took the form of a guideline called “the best interests of the child.” Although this principle is not identical with putting children first, it became a dominant slogan and instruction, and I will use it interchangeably with putting-children-first. Examining what the best-interests-of-the-child principle has yielded for specific children and their parents reveals two immediate problems: the arbitrariness of grouping together children of all ages and of defining the beginning of adulthood; and the possibility, even likelihood, that there will be competing definitions of what the child’s best interest is.2 These are the kinds of problems that any policy encounters in trying to balance the rule of law with individual welfare, and I have no expertise to offer in solving them.
I want to make, instead, an historical argument, one that will produce no guidelines for adjudication or casework. My concern derives from an examination of social policy history with respect to children in several arenas: custody, legitimacy, family violence, welfare, and immigration. My evidence comes from the United States, where the putting-children-first principle has been particularly strong, a mark of its modernism, driving economy, individualism, and relative disrespect for tradition and the elderly. And, yet, the United States arguably treats children worse than other countries of comparable wealth.
Let me illustrate with some data, no doubt familiar to many of you.3 Children’s poverty in the United States today is more extensive than that in other developed countries and is deepening, not only absolutely but also in comparison to other sectors of the U.S. population. While eleven percent of the whole population live in poverty, seventeen percent of children do—and, believe me, if the federal government says you are poor, then you are very poor. Thirty-nine percent of children live in “low-income” families. The Children’s Defense Fund calculates that forty-five percent of that seventeen percent live in extreme poverty. The Social Security Act of 1935 rescued many of the elderly from poverty: in 1949, sixty percent of the elderly were poor; in 2004, ten percent. Thirty-three percent of African-American children, twenty-seven percent of Latino/a children, forty percent of American Indian children, for example, are officially classified as poor. To express the proportions another way, thirty-nine percent of the poor are children. Forty percent of the homeless are children; on any given night 1.2 million children are homeless, half of them under six. (In general, the younger the children, the higher their rate of poverty.) Sixteen percent of households with children experience “food insecurity”—living...